Katelyn Halpern
Katelyn Halpern

In a corner of the southern gallery at Deep Space (77 Cornelison) are fifteen white flags. They’re weathered, a little bit crumpled, sagging on the ends of thin metal rods assembled in a rough pick-up-sticks pile. They’re artfully arranged, but you won’t get the sense that their position has been fretted over; collectively, they speak of resignation, and no further fuss is necessary to enhance that statement. These flags aren’t large: each one is about the size of a single white rose. At first blush, you might mistake them for condolence flowers. It suits the show they adorn: “Disaster [Place],” an immersive exhibition with a definite funereal feel. Also, nobody ever expects Katelyn Halpern to surrender.

Halpern, designer of the “Disaster [Place],” has a well-earned reputation for irreverence. At SMUSH Gallery, the tiny McGinley Square multimedia art space she directs with her partner Benedicto Figueroa, she once superimposed images of famous artworks atop images of toast, and hung the results on the wall. The EONTA Space comeback show “Troublemakers” contained a short film of a masked Halpern slow-dancing with a houseplant.  She’s consistently championed the work of local creators who lead with their disregard for rules and art world conventions.

But a nihilist she is not. “Disaster [Place]” is the latest effort by a born searcher who works at art the way a puzzler might work at a Rubik’s Cube — twisting and manipulating, turning parts, trying different combinations until she strikes on something that communicates. The new installation is Halpern at her darkest and most distraught, but it’s also the artist at her most communicative, and maybe at her most ephemeral, too. Halpern has the run of Deep Space until Sunday; after that, she packs up these haunted pieces and moves on to the next project.

If the recent past — including this show — is any indication, it’ll be text-heavy.  Much of “Disaster [Place]” consists of messages lettered in charcoal on white sheets of paper. Blank space threatens to swallow many of the words, small, scrawled, and all-too-human as they are. But in some of the illustrations, hypergraphia seizes the artist by both wrists, and she fills the page with handwriting from corner to corner. The largest sentence is deliberately left incomplete. It hangs above a platform filled with scrolls that visitors are encouraged to unfurl; on them are more words, some which seem salient to the riddle on the wall, and others that restate themes and concepts from nearby works. This is less a Mad Lib than it is a statement of painful ambivalence from an artist who has never been afraid to wander, and cast about for answers, right there in front of her audience.

This is not to say that “Disaster [Place]” is ambiguous. It isn’t. Most of the phrases, fragments, and full sentences written on the walls speak of an interpersonal breakdown. Halpern wonders if there is an alternate world where she and her addressee don’t make each other desperately unhappy. “I’ll see you in the mourning,” reads another piece, which is about as pithy and pained a breakup note as one distraught lover could deliver to an unfortunate partner. She returns, with eerie regularity, to the image of a blizzard, white, enveloping, and immobilizing. On a torn poster, Halpern writes “I found myself napping both Saturday and Sunday,” The rip that divides the words feels like a jolt awake, and an attempt to resist the lure of oblivion.

Other evidence suggests that the pillow won that battle. Tucked away in another corner of Deep Space, is a small bed, barely big enough for a child’s body. A clothing rack containing white garments leans against a far wall. Two candles burn. The scent is of Halpern’s own devising; she calls it “early universe,” but the smell is homey, even vaguely lemony, like a cleanser or a refrigerator after a trip to a farmstand. The artist, who appeared at the opening dressed in cloud-white, served guests cupfuls of green tea. Kitchen, bedroom, candlelit bath, walk-in closet: this is, unmistakably, a domestic nightmare that Halpern is inviting us to inhabit, and a ghost-echo of a shattered house. It’s all bone-white because it’s been stripped of its particulars by Halpern’s dexterous imagination. Nevertheless, the real-world roots of everything portrayed in the show are hard to miss. The “universe” she refers to in these works is nothing too cosmic: it’s that private plane of existence occupied by couples close enough to peek into each other’s minds.  “Is there a universe,” reads the most poignant piece in this very sad show, “in which I can see inside of you/you can see inside of me.”  This one isn’t torn, which, to me, suggests that there’s hope.

Not very much of it, though.  If the real disaster place is between Katelyn Halpern’s ears, it’s telling that that territory is mostly composed of words — and that the words are nearly swallowed by the silent white space that surrounds them. “Disaster [Place]” is, ultimately, about how language frames, filters, refines, and sometimes suppresses emotional experience, and the artist, who has always loved to write about her work, turns her formidable word power against the void. She’s not going to take that nap; not yet, anyway, not as long as she’s got something to say.

Katelyn Halpern is an accomplished dancer as well as a compelling conceptual artist, and she’s got an excellent sense of how bodies occupy space. There’s no yellow blocking tape on the floor, but she’s made the most of the interior of the second floor gallery. She understands the rhythms of circulation and the distance that a single step can allow a person to travel, and knows just how much space to leave between wall-messages, and just how far to place the bed from the clothes-rack from the candles from the clutch of white flags. It’s noteworthy that she did not choose to mount this very personal show at her own gallery; I’m not completely sure why that is, but I reckon it has something to do with the floor plan of Deep Space, its resemblance to a Jersey City apartment, and her demonstrated understanding of the language of interiors.

It’s also meaningful that this show is a limited event. Beautiful, chilling, and powerful though it is, this is nowhere Katelyn Halpern wants to dwell for long.  If you haven’t visited a disaster place of your own over the past two years, count yourself an an extraordinarily lucky person. If you have, you know: it’s important to remember exactly where that place is. It’s important to take its full measure. And then it’s vital to leave it behind.


(Disaster [Place] will be on view at Deep Space today, Friday, Aug. 5, from 7 p.m. until 11 p.m., and Benedicto Figueroa will host an open mic at 8 p.m.  The show continues tomorrow, Saturday, Aug. 6 from 1 p.m. until 11 p.m., including a pop-up shop at 1 p.m. and deejays and musical entertainment at 8 p.m.  The show closes on Sunday, Aug. 7, and Katelyn Halpern will be in the Gallery from 1 p.m. through 8 p.m.)   

Tris McCall has written about art, architecture, performance, politics, and public culture for many publications, including the Newark Star-Ledger, the Bergen Record, Jersey Beat, the Jersey City Reporter,...